5 million tourists. That’s like if the entire population of Finland boarded airplanes and all flew to another, already over-populated, country. With such a figure in mind it can be difficult to imagine that there really are places to go in India that are well off the beaten path. But the secret beauty of India is that one moment you can feel in the middle of all the hubbub only to turn a corner and enter into the unknown.
Luckily, the millions of visitors to the nation tend to all congregate in what is known as the Golden Triangle – Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. While there is definitely something to be said for these cities, much of the magic of the country is to be found away from the non-stop tourist hustle. Taking a leap off the well-worn path may seem daunting at first, but the benefits of the more authentic experience are certainly worth exploring.
Here are six ways to get out into this massive country and see some of the myriad wonders that India has to offer.
There is no question that Goa is India’s most popular beach stop and after a few minutes on it's picturesque beaches there is no wonder why. But with beauty and accessibility come the tourists, the chains, and the lingering question of whether or not paradise has been tainted. If you want to really get away from it all the Andaman Islands, closer to Burma than India, are famous for their untouched beauty, clear-blue seas, and abundantly lush hillsides.
If cultural immersion is what you are after, then heading to the spots favoured by the locals is a fascinating look at how Indians holiday. Yes, this path may be a little more worn but it is worn by a different set than the packaged Euros. Generally, the locals tend to favour destinations that allow a break from the heat by heading to the cool and quaint hill stations.
Speaking of Gujarat, this large state on India’s Western coast is one of the least visited and most highly rewarding. Famed for being one of India’s wealthiest states, the dearth of foreign tourists and incredible geography make this stop well worth its salt. Exploring Gujarat could mean heading to the Portuguese seaside town of Diu, seeing the palaces in the university town of Vadodara, or taking in the salt plains at Little Rann.
Gujarat provides a window into a side of India that is far from the snake-charmer stereotype. Mix in the delicious vegetarian fare and the statewide prohibition laws and you have yourself a very unique locale conveniently nestled en route from Rajasthan to Mumbai but far from the well blazed trail.
Most travellers to India are visiting on group tours of the packaged variety. While it may be a little daunting to navigate the nation on your own, just heading out without a tour guide means you’ll get farther off the path than most. The simplest way to make your own way is to forego the luxury tours and scenery-missing flights and travel by train. One of the leftover signatures of British colonialism is the nationwide railway network, which today transports roughly 13 million passengers daily.
While journeys between big cities can be taxingly long, it’s 16 hours from Delhi to Mumbai, train travel can take you all over the country – on journeys short or long – and give you a taste of authentic India in the process. A much-recommended journey is the toy-train to and from Shimla.
As is the case in the U.S., India’s coastal states tend to attract the most tourists. It is certainly nice to navigate the country’s periphery but if you want to go where few tourists venture, head to the country’s middle. Southern India has popular inland spots including the historic city of Mysore and cosmopolitan Bangalore; or try inland cities of the north like Khajuraho which yields the famed Kama Sutra carvings.
Difficult to get to, but isn’t that true for all the best places? Tucked between Nepal and Bhutan, the West Bengal Hills are home to rolling hillsides, stretching tea plantations, and the notorious city of Darjeeling.
Take in nature’s beauty on treks through Singalilia National Park with views over Nepal and the Himalayas; ride an historic toy train through the hillsides; spend days lazing around Darjeeling and enjoying the mix of Buddhist temples and colonial buildings. This state is also home to Calcutta, where most of the tourists head, so leave the trail and head north. The unpaved path awaits.
With a country of such magnitude and marvel these six suggestions only scratch the surface. India is so vast and so nuanced that getting off the beaten path can be as subtle as taking the less-travelled Delhi street or as bold as heading into a sleepy snow-covered mountain town. Carve out the trip that you want, get out of the cities as much as possible, and look for those shimmers of the real Indian spark. The untouched is all around, so go explore it.
Elena is an American writer who lived in Thailand for two and a half years after graduating from Princeton University. She writes and blogs about travel and culture for sites including travelfish.org. She currently lives in New York City. Follow her on twitter @eleshepp